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How Mormonism stacks up against the Slow Church movement

By most standards of the Slow Church movement, Mormonism is a terrific success. By others, though, we're failing craptastically.

slow turtleMany of us have a fast life: fast food, fast work, and fast devices that enable—make that “require”—us to connect with people at anywhere, at any time.

In the last decade, various “slow” movements have arisen to combat this craziness. Among them is the slow church movement, now with an excellent manifesto co-authored by Englewood Review of Books editor Christopher C. Smith and CONSPIRE magazine managing editor John Pattison.

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus isn’t just about our personal decisionmaking or family worship; it focuses more on what is systemic. It’s about what churches and denominations can do to make slowness a way of life and faith.

When I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the ways its suggested practices are or are not being lived out in my own faith tradition, Mormonism.

In a couple of areas, we excel—particularly in Sabbath-keeping, gathering regularly for community meals, and making a communal record of the ways God is at among us.

My ward just had a terrific monthly testimony meeting yesterday, for example, which is the kind of regular “memory keeping” the authors encourage. Mormons often express gratitude for God’s many good gifts, we are generous with our time and money, and we show hospitality, especially to one another.

In other areas, Mormons fail craptastically.

Slow movements in general succeed or fail based on how tied they are to their communities. In slow food, for example, all ingredients are locally grown, prepared, and enjoyed. Slow design “celebrates diversity and regionalism” by emphasizing the integration of local architectural traditions and indigenous natural materials.

Slow is inherently incompatible, then, with the goals of Correlation.

Since 1960, when Harold B. Lee’s All-Church Coordinating Council faced the ongoing problems of perpetual budget shortfalls and what historian Matthew Bowman has called a “patchwork quilt of the church overseas,” it drew every church activity and program under a highly centralized corporate structure based in Salt Lake City.

That means that today, in Mormonism:

  • The lessons taught are the same in every ward and branch around the world, so whether you walk into a Sunday School lesson in Akron or Abuja you’ll know exactly what to expect.
  • The chapel in Abuja may look just like the one in Akron, using materials that had to be shipped in, because almost all LDS meetinghouses are constructed using standard plans.
  • The hymns you sing (and the fact that you sing hymns to a piano and organ in the first place) are carefully prescribed according to the conservative musical tastes of white people in Utah. The Church Handbook of Instruction’s only allowance in the section on “adapting ward music to local conditions and resources” stipulates that if no one in the ward knows how to play the piano, the Church can provide a digital one that is preprogrammed with tinny LDS hymns. Um, thanks? “Adapting” in this case does not mean changing Mormon music styles or worship preferences to fit local cultures, though the CHI sniffs that “other instruments” may sometimes be used if they’re not too secular or prominent. And they’re not brass. Or percussion.
  • The racial and ethnic makeup of high-ranking church leaders is heavily white and American middle-class. For an individual abroad to rise to anything more than local or regional leadership requires first a full assimilation in American culture and values, to say nothing of the English language. Mormonism is not yet a global religion, but an American religion with an increasingly global reach.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been and continue to be many benefits to Correlation. For example, it has leveled the playing field enough that LDS communities with enough critical mass to need a meetinghouse building are going to get one regardless of whether they can raise the money locally, as used to be the case.

slow churchBut most post-Correlation LDS chapels, whether in the U.S. or abroad, look like they have simply been plunked down on a random street with little concern for neighborhood integration.

The phenomenon the authors describe of “placelessness,” where people come to church for services or activities and then return home without getting involved in the church’s neighborhood, describes many Mormon wards to a T.

What might a slow Mormonism look like?

  • It would open itself to local expressions in worship and have stronger ties to the neighborhoods in which it is embedded.
  • It would allow for more ideas and changes to bubble up from the ground rather than be dictated from the top of a far-away corporate structure.
  • It would stop measuring our spiritual impact primarily by numerical growth.
  • And it would not strive to be the same the world over.